Published February 1, 2018
They say everyone in Iceland knows each other, but that’s an exaggeration. I went to visit the President, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, this autumn and the setting was rather formal—a white-gloved servant took me to the waiting room and I was asked to write my name in the guest book before being escorted to the inner chambers where Guðni was standing in his office.
Visiting the Prime Minister is a different matter. A guy behind the desk buzzes you in and people are running around. The Grapevine photography crew have taken over the waiting room. We are four now, and we seem to outnumber the PM’s staff. The building, built as a prison in 1770, also seems too small for its function. It was originally meant to house up to 70 inmates and was considered the sturdiest building in Iceland at the time, so the Danish governor decided in 1819 to turn it into the seat of government, which it has remained ever since.
The tall press secretary, Lára Björg, receives me and after about 15 minutes of looking at photographs on the wall of the various cabinets going back to 1944, Katrín Jakobsdóttir arrives. She is shorter than I remember, having seen her around the University campus 20 years ago when she was studying Icelandic Language and Literature. Before that, she had received the highest marks ever given at her secondary school. The impression is that the smartest girl in class has taken over the school—a feeling I have heard is noticeably missing in Washington these days.
So why did this bookish young woman, known to be an avid reader of crime fiction, turn to politics? What is it like to be only the country’s second female Prime Minister, in the time of #MeToo? Is the Post-Collapse Era finally over? And why is the leader of the Left-Greens currently in a coalition government with the Conservatives? I am shown into a sitting room, and we begin.
You started your career editing for book publishers as well as teaching, and your brothers are both respected writers and academics. Was it never tempting to head farther in that direction?
“I am still heading there. It was never my plan to make politics a lifelong career. I am only 41 and I think that’s where I will end up when I am done here.”
So how did you end up in politics?
“Well, I am a person of strong opinions. Most members of my family were, but my parents were not party affiliated. And I was always very socially engaged and wound up in committees, be it at school or in my apartment building. I would always show up for cleaning day. When social engagement and strong opinions go together, politics is a natural place to wind up.”
Did you ever consider joining other parties? Why the Left-Greens?
“I initially joined the Left-Greens because of the Kárahnjúkar dam [the building of the dam in the highlands was a hotly contested issue at the turn of the century, fiercely opposed by the Left-Greens]. That was when I decided that this was my party.”
When you first entered Parliament after the 2007 elections, the banking boom was in full swing. Everyone seemed to be into the free market and the Left-Greens doomed to perpetual opposition.
“Our sister parties in the Nordic Countries are used to being in opposition and there hasn’t been a Prime Minister from a party like this, to the left of the Social Democrats, in those countries. I joined the Left-Greens in 2002 and was election manager in Reykjavik during the 2003 elections when we were losing a percentage point a week. It was an interesting learning experience. I was the leader of the youth movement at the time, and was asked to be vice-party chairman as a representative of the young people. We then did better in the 2006 municipal elections and, in the end, that led to me being elected as MP in 2007.”
And then everything changed.
“I was pregnant when I entered Parliament and had a baby on December 31st, 2007. When I returned from maternity leave in the autumn of 2008, there was the economic collapse and a looming depression. It was said that this would be the only chance for us to enter government, after a near national bankruptcy. I think we did many good things, such as tackling wealth inequality, but there were many difficult issues to deal with, such as the Icesave debt and the EU membership application, which was a bone of contention throughout the term.”
You became Minister of Education and Culture in the coalition government between Left-Greens and Social Democrats from 2009 to 2013. At the time you said that you would probably be the most unpopular minister ever to hold that position since, due to the overall situation, you would be forced to make many cutbacks.
“It was a strange position to be in. I am very passionate about these issues and yet I had to make budget cuts. I tried to be in good contact with all interested parties to find out how best to go about this. I think on the whole, the education system performed admirably in those trying times, for example by allowing people to study who had lost their jobs.”
But even now, with the economy doing well, the student loan office is making cutbacks by no longer giving out loans to PhD. students, for example. The rules change every year.
“I will have to look into that. We are going to be making a long-term policy in this field. The student loan system laws haven’t been revised since 1991, except when the guarantor system was abolished in 2009. That was my first act as Education Minister [under the old system, friends and family of students would act as guarantors of their loans and be liable in case of default].”
In 2013, you were voted out of government and were back in opposition. But instead of leaving politics, you became chairman of your party. Wasn’t it tempting to move on at this point?
“I often feel I do better in adversity. We felt we could learn a lot from our cabinet experience and did a lot of work within our party. We were also in financial dire straits since, by losing half our votes, we also lost a lot of the government subsidies [In the Icelandic system, any party that attains more than 2.5 percent of the votes gets subsidised by the government based on their size]. I felt it was a worthwhile challenge. But at the same time, it must be said that it can be challenging to turn being in opposition into a creative endeavour. Even if we try to be effective, the goal is to always be able to affect policy changes, and the best way to do this is to be in government.”
It has often been said that politics in the other Nordic Countries is more consensus-based…
“Here there is more conflict, yes.”
New parties have been formed lately with the intent of changing the political culture, but this seems to be happening very slowly.
“I believe that this should be possible, but we often seem to revert to the old ways. We also have to face the fact that very often, we just disagree on matters. Now we have a chance to be in a government where the parties often don’t agree, which is very different from taking part in a government made up of two left-of-centre parties. Yes, we may not always agree, but what are we going to do about it? In the other Nordics, there is a greater tradition of submitting legislation to bipartisan committees before debating it in Parliament. We have sometimes done this successfully, such as with the Immigration Laws, or the housing bills, which were done in a bipartisan manner.”
Politics didn’t really seem to register much during the boom years. Those weren’t very political times…
“Then there was an awakening, and a lot of interest in politics, all of a sudden. Previously, politicians had been seen as somewhat annoying. Up until then, the Kárahnjúkar dam had been the only issue people got very excited about. I showed up to protest the dam as well as the Iraq War.”
But now there seems to be more of an exhaustion with politics. Do you think that the period that started in 2008 is coming to a close?
“During the last elections, we tried door-to-door campaigning to speak directly with voters, which was pretty common in the old days. People had differing opinions and wanted to discuss different things, but the one thing almost everyone agreed upon was that they did not want another election for four years. So yes, people seem to be getting tired of the turbulence.”
The New Party Politics
The Left-Greens made gains in the elections in both 2016 and 2017, which were both held prematurely as a result of Prime Ministers on the right being involved in scandals. In late November, a new government was formed under the premiership of Katrín Jakobsdóttir, consisting of former adversaries of the Left-Greens: the Conservative Independence Party, as well as the Centre-Right Progressive Party. This was a constellation not seen in Icelandic politics since before the beginning of the Cold War and was contested by many within her own party.
Such a wide coalition may achieve stability by bringing the various factions together, but isn’t it possible that it may lead to less political debate in general?
“Perhaps in some ways. But we do have eight parties in Parliament [an Icelandic record] and five opposition parties should give us plenty of debate. And Icelanders remain Icelanders. Many were very unhappy with me for starting the talks at all, and that is fine. I understand that completely. But many were also glad to see something new in politics, here. The reaction was all over the map.”
In Germany, they have had problems forming a government. What is feared there is that when the two largest parties are in power, this will lead to more radicalisation of the extremes as parts of society feel unrepresented. The large parties tend to grow smaller, and some voters start to feel that all politicians are the same.
“I feel that to some extent, this has happened here already. We have seen great changes in the party structure and many new parties running. I think this coalition government is an attempt to shake up old ideas about the party structure. It may be taking a risk, but so is being alive.”
Do you think it may lead to new lines being drawn instead of the left-right ones of the 20th Century? Could EU membership be one of the new dividing issues?
“Well, [non-membership] is one thing that the government parties do agree upon. But I think that the left-right spectrum will remain important in the 21st Century. We now have an opportunity to create consensus around issues that we need more consensus about, such as the environment, and the basic social issues that we urgently need to address. There is a demand to redistribute the government income that has increased due to the economic recovery into the health sector, education and into stronger welfare. This is our great task.”
What then is the main difference between the government and opposition today?
“During the collapse, we had a grand coalition [Social Democrats and Conservatives], then a left-wing government, then two right-wing ones, and now there is another grand coalition. But the opposition is also mixed, and that is the difference from the oppositions that I have been a part of, which have been centre-left ones. We are being criticised from different sides; for not spending enough on infrastructure or spending too much; for not raising taxes enough or raising them too much. The opposition was divided on capital gains taxes, for example. There aren’t clear lines anymore.”
Won’t it be difficult for the voter to decide where he belongs?
“Perhaps that’s where we are. There have been tremors in the party structure in Iceland and it hasn’t quite found its new form.”
The Post-Collapse Era is not quite over then?
“Not at all.”
#MeToo and Ministers of Loneliness
As in many countries fewer people in Iceland are voting these days, even if the proportion remains fairly high at 80 percent. Of particular worry are younger voters, with around a 20 percent gap between participation in younger and older age groups in most elections.
You say you entered politics because of the Kárahnjúkar dam. What might the young Katríns out there today get fired up about?
“That’s a good question. I have visited secondary schools and spoken to people who just have, or are just about to, get their voting rights. They are very interested in gender and equality issues. But in the past few years, I have also sensed there is increasing interest in social issues, mental health issues and social deprivation. The British government has now created a Minister of Loneliness. I think this is what young people are thinking a lot about—new ways of interacting that have led to more people becoming isolated, and how to make our society more inclusive and humane. I think the social awareness of this generation is very positive—there is a lot of knowledge about environmental issues, feminism and, for example, the correlation between two of mankind’s greatest problems: climate change and the refugee crisis.”
Will you be creating a ministry of loneliness or make that a part of some ministerial portfolio?
“I think it should be a part of mine,” she laughs, “but I also think this is a question of how we approach problems. Do we look at them from the point of view of individuals or as a part of society? I prefer to not look at them not as individual cases, but to try to find social solutions, and that is part of what my movement is all about. The same goes for issues like health.”
Do your coalition partners agree?
“I think we are moving closer to this type of thinking.”
So the emphasis on individuality that was predominant in the first decade of the century is decreasing, even in the parties that once championed it?
“I can’t really speak for the other parties, but I can speak for government policy. We are 330,000 in this country and we have to look at our society as a collaborative project. Perhaps the pendulum is now swinging in this direction after having swung very far in the other.”
You are only the second female Prime Minister in our history, and now the #Metoo revolution is taking place. A lot seems to be changing, but it’s harder to predict where it will lead.
“I have three sons, and I am also considering what it must be like to be a boy. That’s not always easy either, in a discussion like this. And many women are looking back and wondering whether they have been forced to accept behaviour that is unacceptable because nobody cared to listen. I think it’s good that everyone thinks about these things for themselves, but we also have to deal with these issues as a society rather than hanging people up on posts. How can we change the culture?”
That seems to cross the old left-right faultlines. What can government do and how much should it do?
“I have set agendas in the various ministries that they look at what has been going on internally. We will be doing the same with all public institutions, and checking that everyone has contingency plans. But it’s not just about rules and legislation—it’s also having a debate about how we can become a society where such things as sexual assault and harassment don’t happen. I, as a feminist, never tire of talking about these things with people, especially men. We are all part of the gender system, and many men consider it an attack upon them when these issues are discussed, but it is important to discuss them. I had a meeting this morning with the ambassadors of the EU states, and there was one woman at the table apart from me and my advisor. I commented on this, without attacking anyone. I think it’s always helpful to wear the gender glasses, although some people probably find it annoying.”
Iceland has often been named as the best place in the world to be a woman. Do you agree with this?
“A foreign journalist asked me recently whether we had achieved equality and I said, when we have had 30 female Prime Ministers in a row, just as there have been men, maybe the answer will be yes. It’s great that we have made advances in terms of equality, but we still haven’t achieved gender balance. We still have a pay gap, violence towards women, and so on. People ask me, in regard to the #Metoo-movement, if I have ever experienced anything like this, and my answer is that every woman has. And many men too. It’s just that we have now started talking about it.”
And what should you do if you have?
“You should always confront people.”
“Yes. And make your boundaries very clear. Don’t be afraid of being annoying.”
Literary Dreams and the Importance of Paternal Leave
Katrín has previously made her mark on how women in politics are perceived. As noted above, hse was pregnant when she became Minister of Education and subsequently went on maternal leave. This did cause some debate at the time, but sometimes things happen first in Iceland and other countries follow.
You were the first minister in Iceland to be pregnant while in office. This has now become an issue for the Prime Minister of New Zealand.
“Good on her! I already have three, so I don’t think I will join her, but I fully support her. Soon after I became pregnant, the Minister of Industry did too. This was considered a major issue, and we set a precedent for how to deal with it. Many thought I was leaving politics and that was discussed in the media. I found that very strange.”
Do you think it would be different today?
“It is fundamental for equality that women should not have to choose between career and family. Politicians here have produced some results. The Centre-Left city council in Reykjavík made great improvements in kindergarten accessibility, after being elected in 1994, and women’s participation in the workforce increased drastically as a result. The same was true of extending maternity leave to include paternal leave, too. We can change things.”
Finally, you are well known for your love of crime fiction. Has this prepared you for life in politics?
“Yes,” she says and laughs. “Trust no one. As they say, only the paranoid survive. But I read fiction every evening, both crime fiction and general literature, and if I am travelling I start to panic if I don’t have a novel with me. I don’t feel that TV or computers or anything else can substitute. Literature is a tool for self-help and self-knowledge—crime fiction perhaps for the former and literary fiction for the latter.”
So what do you think you will do when this job is done?
“I am a great believer in planning for the long-term in politics, but I never make long-term plans for myself. In politics, you are never quite in control of what happens—you can only try to deal with the tasks before you and then events take their course.”
Would you want to write a novel yourself?
“In politics, you are always full of adrenaline, and I would need to find that inner peace to sit down and write. To tell you the truth, it is my dream to write fiction, but I would be terrified of pouring my heart out and then getting bad reviews.”
And so we return to our respective jobs, me as novelist and she to running the country. She makes a joke about trading places, but frankly, I would rather not. I will take the odd bad review over battling every day in the down and dirty world of Icelandic politics. Then again, I am not really a great enthusiast of crime fiction.